Thursday, September 01, 2016

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION (2015)
I really enjoy these movies (the first two notwithstanding). This one isn't quite as good as Ghost Protocol, but it's shot really well and has some great, tense sequences. There's something of a draggy patch in there, which cuts the tension a little too much in the third act, but I still really enjoyed it. ***1/2

MATCH (2014)
Patrick Stewart is very, very good in this movie as ballet teacher whose past walks into his life one day and demands recognition. It's predictable in all of its twists and plot points, which is a disappointing, and Matthew Lillard is saddled with a character who's underwritten. But there's a lovely middle section which is just a two-hander between Stewart and Carla Gugino, who complements his emotions gracefully. I like that middle section. But the first and third acts are just sort of there and don't do much for the story. **1/2

SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)
Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are a couple of sex addicts who meet in college, lose their respective virginities to one another, and then meet years later and form a friendship. Their mutual attraction is obvious to everyone else (and the audience), but what follows is kind of an interesting, unexpected story of a healing friendship. It has the structure of a romantic comedy, and the tropes you would expect, but not the tone. I found that an interesting way to tell the story, even if the story wasn't always engaging. Written and directed by Leslye Hedland, who made the similarly toned (but more engaging) Bachelorette. I read some other reviews of this movie and there were a lot of people who clocked this one for not "earning its romantic comedy moments" or never really catching fire as a satire of rom-com conventions, but I'm not sure it's attempting either of those things. It's not really any kind of satire or deconstruction, as much as it's told in a dramatic manner. I don't know, I liked a lot of what it did, and the lead performances were good. ***

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)
Maybe I expected something a little more involving because it was directed by David Gordon Green, but this political comedy is a hot bowl of nothing. Sandra Bullock is good, but it's just her falling apart and crossing moral lines without much drama while Billy Bob Thornton aggressively mumbles sexual abuse at her and everyone else just kind of sets her up for moments that don't land. I mean, Anthony Mackie is likable because, come on, he's Anthony Mackie, but he doesn't really have anything to do other than react to what Bullock does. And like I said, she's good, but it's a good performance wasted on a nothing movie. **

THE 5TH WAVE (2016)
I didn't realize how tired I was of these YA dystopias until I caught this one. It's never a good sign when you start rewriting the movie in your mind right in the first scene. Chloe Moretz clearly knows this material is beneath her and defaults to a lot of cartoony kiddie acting. No one else really registers, although Liev Schreiber has the right amount of menace. So, yeah, the Earth is invaded, it focuses on kids who can't act (Maika Monroe's big intro/barracks speech is embarrassing), and it sets us up for a trilogy that isn't necessary. It's basically Red Dawn with aliens but a thousand times more boring (and I don't like Red Dawn already). **

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)
Mark Ruffalo as a bipolar dad who agrees to take care of his two daughters in Boston for a year--after having a nervous breakdown--so that their mother (Zoe Saldana) can attend business school in New York and get her degree. Ruffalo is very good at portraying the bipolar swing. It's an autobiographical for writer-director Maya Forbes, whose own daughter portrays Forbes as a child. It's a well-made movie, and it's interesting to see a movie that takes place in the late seventies where the struggle is between Ruffalo's character and his mental illness (and how his daughters are affected by it) rather than the old "How the heck is a MAN going to do all the housework???" trope. ***

AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)
This is the movie David Gordon Green should have directed. This one... damn, the wasted potential is so real. This could have been like a stoner Hitchcock movie, or a pot-laced Bourne Identity, if the script had been handled differently. The problem, I think, is that we know what's going on right away, even before the protagonist does, so it really cuts down on the suspense. Basically, Jesse Eisenberg is a small town stoner getting ready to propose to his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). He's prone to panic attacks and isn't really going anywhere, but he's happy. It turns out (and this is spelled out way too early) that he's a CIA asset, but when he gets activated things start coming back slowly because of his years of marijuana use. I wish we hadn't spent any time with the government for the first half of the movie--the whole thing starts as a power struggle between two CIA suits--because just sticking with Eisenberg's point of view the whole time would've put us into a whole North by Northwest mystery situation that would've made me care more about the characters. What a waste of a set-up. I liked Eisenberg in the movie; I usually don't care for him, because he comes across so hostile, but he works here. And Stewart I always find utterly adorable. I like so much of what's in this movie (particularly the fight scene in the department store), but it's a disappointment that it goes for the most conventional, straightforward method of telling what could have been something really, really good. **1/2

FREEHELD (2015)
Based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a lesbian cop who, in 2005, had to fight Ocean City, New Jersey's board of freeholders in order to have her pension benefits passed on to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. From the director of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and the writer of Philadelphia. There are some problems with this movie, most of which are that it really means well but settles for TV movie drama moments instead of really getting into the characters. Julianne Moore is never bad in the lead, but you don't walk away feeling like you ever got to know her. I like Ellen Page, who plays Stacie, but again, there's just a remoteness to these two and their relationship that never lets you in. The most memorable character--and the movie's best performance--is Laurel's police partner, Dane Wells. Even he is mostly just supportive, but Michael Shannon's performance is so strong that the character becomes magnetic, and the movie's moral center. Which... well, it seems like a problem that the real center of this movie about lesbians fighting for equal rights is a straight man. **1/2

THE SALVATION (2014)
Bleak Danish film about a former soldier (Mads Mikkelsen) living in the American West in 1871. The town he lives outside of is being ruled by a former soldier (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, full of congenial, focused menace) who is running everyone out in order to collect as much oil-rich land as he can. It's a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns and not... particularly good. Mikkelsen is great, as is Morgan, and the cinematography is very good, but it's generic and slow, and the brutality just becomes too much. The film seems to be making a point about the West as the real beginning of American civilization, which explains why everyone acts like a barbarian, but it's never really done in an enlightening or interesting way. **

LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000)
Very enjoyable, insightful, well-acted film about two next door neighbors (Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan) who love basketball, and each other. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood balances the typical sports biopic plot with an emotional perception and some real points--shown and not told--about the disparity between resources and attention in men's sports vs. women's sports. I think the film falters a bit in its third act, but I'm glad it wasn't cliches, and I liked the film's sort of "old-fashioned" sensibility; this reminded me of a dramatic film from the early 1960s, told with a prettiness and a heightened movie sensibility, but with truths to tell about life, love, pressure and the very real possibility of going through life unfulfilled. ***1/2

THE GIFT (2015)
Taut film that's paced like a thriller, but isn't exactly that. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall star as a yuppie couple moving into a new neighborhood (the Mid-Century home they move into is absolutely stunning) just as Bateman's career is taking off. At a store, the two run into someone Bateman went to high school with (Joel Edgerton, who wrote and directed), and who tries to begin a rather one-sided friendship. His interest in the couple seems creepy and overwhelming at first, but then... well, it begins to become something else, and I really don't want to tell you any of the twists in this thing, because I really recommend you see it for yourselves. But be warned: the twists are pretty brutal. A bizarre, gripping flick that challenges expectations and is pretty damn dark in a way that I'm impressed everyone committed to. (Though it is a Blumhouse flick, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.) Great casting: Jason Bateman comes across as a smarmy, phony dick in everything he's ever in, but it's really used well here, and this is literally the first time I've ever liked Rebecca Hall in a movie. ****

2 comments:

Roger Owen Green said...

I meant to see ...Crisis, and didn't, but I recall it got killed both in the b.o. and by the critics.
I liked Love and Basketball, as I recall, the details are now fuzzy.

MC said...

The thing that really bugged me about American Ultra was basically it seemed like Landis watched Paul W.S. Anderson's Soldier and decided "Hey, I want to make this movie too!" It is literally that movie. It isn't an homage... it is a ripoff of that entire premise and execution.